Psychopath with a Heart of Gold
Marveling at so much access to so many, Albert Maysles voiced “highest praise for that, a miracle” that is The Dog. At Harlem’s documentary Maysles Cinema, Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren then responded to questions about the ten years that went into this hilarious, sad, always entertaining hundred minutes.
A mere ten percent of the directors’ original access time was recorded, focusing on subject John Stanley Joseph “The Dog” Wojtowicz; his slow, institutionalized younger brother Tony -- elder Mike is very private and not included -- and their delightful late mother Theresa Basso Wojtowicz, as humorous and only relatively less foul-mouthed and Brooklyn-voiced than her middle son.
When The Dog died in 2006, frighteningly eaten away by cancer before the camera eye, the directors were unsure what direction if any to take. But added archival and current footage flesh out the mother-son love story (in a good sense) and point to other issues as well, not least of which is Brooklyn when it was the world in the 1970s and what it, and the City, has now become.
Dog Day Afternoon deservedly won the screenplay Oscar for its atmospheric portrayal of the media-sensation botched bank robbery three years earlier. Given faulty memory added to The Dog’s lovable but unreliable self-promoting con man, the filmmakers concede that that 1975 Sidney Lumet “based on” is arguably more accurate on the almost improv details within the Chase Manhattan Bank branch, among hostages (two were freed and handed thousands in stolen cash), robbers, cops, Feds and newsmen.
This non-fiction’s interest, however, lies elsewhere, in the larger-than-life persona of its garrulous 5’4” 250-lb. subject, his need for love, the spotlight and sex, and in the early New York context of Gay Liberation. The loss of nine out of ten of his fellow dogfaces during a tour of duty in a Vietnam from which future parents-in-law hoped he would not return, and a claimed homosexual encounter there, may have changed his orientation.
His in-uniform marriage to fellow Chase Manhattan employee Carmen Ann Bifulco -- “wife” is later applied to male and female lovers, legally recognized or not -- produced two children but fell apart in 1969. Interviewed often, in front of two campy Marilyn Monroe porcelains, this first wife does not appear bitter about John’s having begun to frequent Greenwich Village gay haunts, falling in love-at-first-sight with Ernest Aron and marrying him a third of a century before gay marriage ever came to public notice. Personally opposed to a sex-change procedure, he wanted this wife to be happy, and out of love agreed to finance the operation that would change the partner into Elizabeth Debbie Eden. Of two accomplices enlisted for the robbery, one backed out and the other would be killed during the resultant fourteen-hour media circus that rivals any crime caper comedy and predated O.J. Simpson and the white Bronco.
John’s association with the Gay Activist Alliance was opportunistic rather than committed, directed more towards finding bedmates than politics. Manipulative but true to himself -- for instance, addicted to sex but abstaining from alcohol and drugs, he refused chemical treatment for the cancer -- as a naïve underdog prisoner he had a rough go of it at Lewisburg, although there he did meet protector and fourth wife George Heath, a perceptive interviewee in the film. Released after serving five years of a sentenced twenty, the now ex-con was unable to find steady work and was both criticized and applauded for trying to cash in on his fading notoriety.
We see only so much of John The Dog, and as deeply or not, as he wanted. But, whatever parts truth or delusion or braggadocio, this is an irresistible picture of the man, the place and the times.
(Released by Drafthouse Films and not rated by MPAA.)